Black Mass: Depp, Edgerton shine in ensemble gangster flick

Johnny Depp is different things to different people.

He’s borderline flamboyant, swashbuckling pirate Johnny Depp to many filmgoers; undercover teen cop Johnny Depp to an older generation and an enigmatic Mad Hatter Johnny Depp to a much younger subsect of audiences.

There’s no mistaking that the charming when he wants to be, brooding when he needs to be and enigmatic always Johnny Depp feels at home in any number of characters.

But it seems that every five years or so, audiences are treated to the best kind of Depp, crime drama anti-hero Johnny Depp. We’ve seen this Depp play undercover agents in “Donnie Brasco,” drug lords in “Blow” and famous gangsters in “Public Enemies.”

Six years after he died on the street as famed bank robber John Dillinger, crime drama anti-hero Johnny Depp is back and channeling a “The Departed”-era Jack Nicholson as real life Boston kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass.”

Wire to wire in the film, Depp is unrelentingly dominant in every scene he’s in, a choice well suited for the part. Bulger commands with an absolute authority over those who work for him – and even those who don’t – and Depp plays the part with the same bravado. The performance is layered in quieter moments within “Black Mass” where Depp shows a hint of a gentler side to the brutally violent mob boss in scenes between Bulger and his mother as well as his young son.

While “Black Mass” is rightfully billed as Depp’s movie, Joel Edgerton – most recently the writer/director/star of “The Gift” – gives an award-worthy performance as Bulger’s childhood friend turned FBI handler John Connolly. Edgerton portrays Connolly with the same moxie and bravado as Depp handles Bulger, just on the other side of the law. It’s as if the two actors are playing one person on opposite sides of the coin.

Edgerton’s role is pivotal in making “Black Mass” an ensemble piece rather than allowing the actors to essentially become live set dressing for Depp’s one-man-show.

While Depp and Edgerton do the bulk of the heavy lifting on screen, “Black Mass” boasts a fantastic cast who all deserved screen time that Cooper couldn’t add onto a two-hour running time.

Oscar-nominated British actor Benedict Cumberbatch does a much better job offering a compelling and credible Boston accent in “Black Mass” as opposed to his jarring and uneven Southern twang in “August Osage County.” The Brit consistently delivers top-notch performances across the board and, with accent in place, helps to round out Bulger’s character as a moral counterbalance to Bulger. Cumberbatch gives Bulger’s straight-laced state senator brother a refined civility that implies moral high ground with just a wink to the audience that thinks might not be what they seem.

Some of the film’s best work comes from its secondary actors, most notably Dakota Johnson of “Fifty Shades of Grey” fame. Johnson goes toe-to-toe with Depp in several scenes as Bulger’s girlfriend/baby mama with a dazzling exchange between the on-screen couple at a hospital being one of the best moments in a film filled with explosive dialogue and stunning cinematography.

There’s a strong effort made by Cooper to evoke classic gangster clicks of the past within “Black Mass.” Elements of everything from “Casino” to “The Godfather” trilogy to “The Departed” are represented as layers upon layers of cinematic depth within the movie, as if Cooper feels assured of his film’s place among the canon of the genre.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that “Black Mass” hits the big screen in the same month as the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece “Goodfellas,” which seems like an obvious companion film for “Black Mass.” Both are lengthy, high-drama, gangster flicks made with a flair for the cinematically extravagant. It makes sense.

Yet, the true cinematic counterpart for a film like “Black Mass” is David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” a feature that layers historical fact with creative embellishments that old school filmmakers might dub “movie magic” combined with a deep and talented cast of actors at the top of their game. Both films exude a manic energy about them that pervades both the onscreen performances and visual style. Additionally, the plot device used to give equal time and weight to both sides of the law in “Black Mass” feels more like “Hustle” than “The Departed” in terms of the script’s arc and dialogue, especially when comparing Edgerton’s performance to Bradley Cooper’s spastic FBI agent in “Hustle.”

Visually impressive and filled with quality acting performances throughout, “Black Mass” does right by the gangster genre it attempts to join the canon of and is worth finding in an area theater.

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